Alice Ferry, narrator and co-protagonist of Maurice Gee’s new novel, is a mycologist – an expert on fungi. That is, her professional life is devoted to studying spongy, fragile, morbid life-forms that lurk in dark places, feed on decay, and may be briefly beautiful and insidiously poisonous. Maurice Gee’s professional life is devoted to studying much the same.
In Blindsight, which is both a typical and an excellent Gee fiction, he’s probing again under the infected toenails of New Zealand life. Even in Gee’s long gallery of disappointment and fallibility, the key figure here, the object of the characteristic Gee quest to explain an enigmatic life, is unprepossessing. He is Gordon, Alice’s too-beloved brother, who has declined into Wellington’s bucket-man, a wordless derelict shuffling about the city in laceless shoes, a filthy quilt trailing over his shoulder, a plastic bucket in his hand. Why, Gee, Alice, and the narrative she is writing enquire, has this man of such sensitivity and talent (sprinter and rugby hero who always came top in English) chosen to assume the role and identity of a stained and stinking alkie called Cyril Handy, who got stabbed to death halfway through the story without anybody caring much? Except Gordon.
The enquiry, in its form as Alice’s journal, encompasses her and Gordon’s lives, starting as the children of a small-town (Loomis again) chemist in the 1940s, to the edge of old age in 21st century Wadestown – an affluent hilltop house for her, a den among the pine roots on Tinakori Hill for him. The search is conducted with that meticulous compassion that always gives such depth to Gee’s narratives of human scrutiny. It also has, perhaps more satisfyingly than ever before, the characteristic Gee texture of cadenced, metaphoric, musically structured prose. He is, to put the point a little provocatively, one of our best poets. And, as with a good poet (Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, say), part of the texture is the reuse of familiar images and references, often autobiographical in origin, providing for the regular reader a kind of choric connection with the writer’s work as a whole, and what we may deduce from it of his formative experiences and concerns.
So there are many elements of the plot, setting and imagery that will be familiar, and that gain resonance from the recognition. There is Loomis/Henderson in process of transformation from quiet little town to traffic-sprawled suburb. There is a creek and a boyhood den, this time in a macrocarpa hedge. There is a mother who fades and despairs but still puritanically controls, and a father who loves and cares and tries but screws up – only once, lured astray by frilly panties and big breasts, but the damage as usual is lifelong and dislocates the whole family. There is a colourfully senescent grandfather assiduously looking up skirts and down cleavages. There is joyless, mostly mechanical, eventually compulsive sexual love accompanied at its very onset by “the premonition of pain”. Most of the people “fail in love”, as Meg said about Plumb nearly 30 years ago. There are movies that enter the metaphoric text, this time The Alien Corn (from Maugham’s Quartet) and The Incredible Shrinking Man, an image that is later fitted to both father and son.
Settings shuffle between various known and mostly downmarket Gee-spots in Henderson, Auckland, Wellington and Nelson, with a cameo reference to Whakatane (view of Whale Island), where Gee was born. Wellington provides its customary flight of steps that someone might fall down. There are names that sound like allegorical code – Ferry, Ayres, Kite, Moore, Seed, Handy. (Alice Ferry moves romantically from Ayres to Kite and is eventually grounded by Moore. Gee will smile his sphinx-like smile at such nonsense, but this is the writer whose glorious old comrade on the edge of death was called Pitt-Rimmer and who gave us Plumb, Pratt, Prior and Sole.)
There are scenes of violence, vomit, excrement, squalor, disease, death, and illicit sex, which is no more fun than any of the others. And there is a whodunnit murder mystery, the solution to which most readers I know had guessed well in advance.
That only left the eels. I was worried about them when all through the Loomis scenes they failed to appear, even when Alice, having discovered her father’s adultery, lingers in distress by the creek, with its “squashy margin” and “deep green pools beyond”, a perfect eel cue in every previous Gee novel. Then, to my immense relief, they show up in Wellington, not in their own slimy skins but as a simile for the rags Gordon wraps round his hands when he’s working as a window cleaner, “like eels from the Loomis Creek”. And at that point, I confess, I wondered – is there a literary prankster deep within this seemingly doleful author? Is he slyly mocking his reviewers and the academic thesis writers by feeding us the titbits we require – raw, jellied or smoked? I merely offer the possibility.
But I would seriously say that there is, if not secret mischief, a lot more almost-concealed vitality in Gee’s writing than meets the superficial eye. He’s not a writer to skim. Look at the imagery. Listen to it, too. This is Mary Ferry when her husband confesses his adultery:
Mother keened. The sound was enclosed at first, like the humming of a bumble bee in a pumpkin flower. She never denied what she was hearing. She never flashed in anger or burned him with her eyes. He held her hands tightly, one in each fist, and she made no attempt to pull away. But the sound she made grew into a wailing. Then she fought for breath, in throaty gasps.
The choked broken movement, the perfect suppressed onomatopoeia of the humming bumble bee, the sense all through of containment, constraint and constriction, all the negatives that give such vividness to things that do not happen, the images of flash and fire and fist and fight, the final struggle for air that is only gasping – you’d go a long way to find this common human tragedy so well expressed.
Narration is never only narration in Gee’s painstakingly woven and potent texture. Scenery, background, descriptive similes, weather, clothing, gesture, and the most humble actions and dialogue are all liable to be pulsing with metaphoric energy and meaning:
I drove to Tahunanui and waited on the footpath outside his flat. Trucks like roaring beasts went by, followed by hooting sedans; then Richie cycled through the misty rain, wearing his black slicker that fitted him like a carapace. He dismounted and made a flat gesture with his hand, slicing me out of his day.
“No, Alice. Not now.”
Or take the Johnsonville unit. Young Adrian Moore is trying to track down the old girlfriend of Gordon – in fact, his grandparents. He calls on her ill-tempered sister at Ngaio (where Gee now lives). The high line of the railway, the rugged Wellington ridges and gorges it traverses, the dark tunnels and eventual emergence into the breathing space of the rail-yards, become metaphoric, evince the lad’s shift from disappointment to hope. Every word works, and so does every detail of the landscape and the journey:
He turned away from her slammed door and caught the train from Ngaio station back to Wellington. The gorge on one side, with the creek glinting here and there, deep down, the tunnels one by one made an end of Marlene as a person to know, while keeping her hidden, in place; but coming into the city, rolling through the yards, opened up Gordon again.
Going back to where I began, to the fungi: things and people in this book are often in the dark, or collapse, or are parasitic, or infected (“It was life that infected me,” says Alice; even “Poor half-dead Loomis creek” gets an “infection” from a pig farm.). Or they crumble and shrink (“Father no longer trusted himself … He began to soften and shrink like a last-season’s apple at the back of a shelf”). The pools and pits of Loomis creek lurk to the end, relocating to the gorges and creeks of Wellington, always in Alice’s mind, and Gee’s. When Alice follows Gordon to his den among the pine roots on Tinakori Hill, she sees him “sink into a hollow as though going down in a pool”, just as her love for him “was like a deep black hole” and she has to “hold my breath as though I were drowning”.
In a better time earlier in the action, Alice and Gordon scramble like lovers (too much like lovers, she hints) on Tinakori and she finds a fungus “symbiotic with the pines”, just as he will later become. The scene there becomes animistic, almost Dickensian: “Arthritic trees, purple-trunked and heavily green, stoop and peer.” Alice works on black spot and has nightmares of fungus gnat lavae. The squalid corners of the city join with the pools and pits and slips and drowning images of Gee’s familiar psychological landscape to become the inside of a person like Cyril the alkie: “He was a big man shrunken to middle size. Collapses, subsidences, nasty pools and pits and rubbish heaps existed inside him.”
And then we are reminded that it is Alice the subjective narrator who has conceived such a degradingly unkind connection:
I am overdoing it because I overdid it then. Keeping to his outside: dirt ingrained in his forehead, pores open in his nose, fingernails thickened to yellow horn – oh, let me get description out of the way with etc. etc. and admit that I could not have taken all this detail in at a glance.
Alice is as much a created narrator as Plumb or Meg or Jack Skeat. For all that their voices are often Gee’s, he still manages to fake paring his fingernails while Alice reveals herself as subjective, fallible, untrustworthy, in denial, and modestly or preeningly conscious of her own writerly constructs. Important information is delayed or withheld. Tracking her evasions and self-delusions is as interesting as working out the murder. As usual with Gee, you have to work hard at this multi-layered novel if you’re going to get it right, or enjoy half its finely wrought rewards.
For Gee’s quiet melancholic tone conceals a sustained versatility of technique. The text never rests in one mode, sliding between narrative, scene, description, dialogue, inner consciousness, reflection, confession, philosophical apophthegm, and much else, all layered with that metaphoric richness I have already noted. Blindsight is written with such sheer professional accomplishment that it could well become the favourite among Gee aficionados. For those new to him, I would still have to prefer the mythic resonance of Plumb, the bio-fiction literary appeal of Going West, the wartime period atmosphere of Live Bodies, or the small-town intensity of The Burning Boy.
When I’m asked in America to recommend a New Zealand novel to read, it’s often Plumb. I have to say it won’t be Blindsight, for all its verbal rewards. Its vision is too bleak. Its version of life in Absolutely Putrescently Wellington is too partial. The medical condition of “Blindsight” is defined in the novel as “where your vision is knocked out on one side, yet another pathway allows you to put your hand on things you cannot see.” Gee has a bit of it. He puts his hand on some terrific, vivid scenes, but the two best are in the hospital morgue and a derelicts’ doss-house. Of course he is entitled to his vision, which he inscribes with high craft into intense and moving fiction. But it leaves a lot out. Tinakori Hill has spurs and ridges and sheltered zigzag sloping paths soft with pine needles that make it one of the world’s great hill-walking (or running) venues, only a few minutes’ stroll from the CBD. In reality it’s too steep to attract many derelicts in laceless shoes, at least in my 30 years’ acquaintance with its challenging intricacies. (Though apparently the real-life bucket-man, the original of Gee’s, did indeed have a den just above Grant Road.)
And this is not just literalism. Gee sees Wellington as a dire and dangerous city of gorges and pits and precipitous downward steps. I see it as a magical place where I can leave the sea and the downtown and in 15 minutes run out into the sky. It’s like being a bird. In an American magazine recently I described Wellington’s town belt – Tinakori Hill and Mount Victoria – as “a piece of mid-19th century environmental planning genius”, so I may be feeling a bit defensive. But readers need to know that Blindsight is not a jolly romp. Its vision is blightedly fungoid. It has great rewards and many small pleasures (see eels, above), but Maurice Gee increasingly reminds me of what Thomas Hardy’s second wife wrote in a letter one afternoon: “Mr Hardy is upstairs writing a poem. He is enjoying himself immensely. Needless to say, it is an intensely dismal poem.”
Roger Robinson’s new book (with Kathrine Switzer) is 26.2: Marathon Stories.